An oil painting on view at the State Capitol, depicting a scene from the Civil War, made a lasting impression on David James Carlson as a child.
The Blaine resident remembered the work by Rufus Zogbaum when he learned more about its subject matter, many years later: the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment’s deadly charge on July 2, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Going up against as many as 1,600 Confederate soldiers, the regiment, which was down to 262 men, helped the Union Army win the fateful Civil War battle, but suffered a staggering 80 percent casualty rate in the process. Carlson, a local actor, writer and musician, was inspired to write an epic song about their heroism. These men “sacrificed themselves so about five precious minutes could be gained, to bring in reinforcements,” he said.
After he did some more digging, Carlson’s side project turned into a full-fledged production that he titled “The First Minnesota: A Civil War Musical,” in the vein of “Les Miserables.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the battle. Carlson, a retired teacher, is hoping to stage the musical at various historic landmarks, public parks and other sites across the state this July, and to record it for a CD.
To bring those goals to fruition, he needs to raise a minimum of several thousand dollars to cover the cost of insurance for live performances and to make the CDs, he said.
Financial challenges aside, Carlson has multiple sclerosis, which hinders his ability to play instruments or to use the computer, at times. But he’s on a mission. “I just want people to know the story. They gave their lives,” he said, adding, “I almost feel like these guys are saying, don’t forget us. Don’t let us down.”
The musical, set in Gettysburg on July 2 and 3 of 1863, unfolds in two acts.
Carlson sprinkles in numerous historical references throughout the dialogue and lyrics, though he took some artistic liberties.
The show, which calls for 11 cast members, recounts the charge, while also getting up close and personal with some of the men fighting and those back home.
Although the music has a modern style, the lyrical songs are reminiscent of the period, he said.
To denote the fighting, some numbers have a “military cadence,” with loud snare drums, while others are slow and melancholy.
A temporary truce
As evening falls in the play, the First Minnesota encounters a rebel soldier. Eventually, the men get into a conversation in which they share their philosophies about fighting in the war.
That night, they declare a temporary truce. “They say, ‘I’m sorry if tomorrow we’re killing each other but tonight we’re brothers,’ ” Carlson said.
The men remark on how it’s so quiet, “You can almost hear the smoke from the brush, of smoldering cannon fire.” That is, until the rebel soldier pulls out his harmonica. It sets off a chain reaction in which the other men are clicking their canteens, making noise with their bayonets and slapping the sides of their boots. “All these percussions are happening, growing,” he said. “They’re having fun, relieving the tension.”
This is one of the show’s more lighthearted moments, which comes before the “dramatic ending, with the soldiers knowing they’re about to be charged,” he said.
Leo Whitebird, who has a private recording studio in his home in south Minneapolis, is helping Carlson lay down the musical tracks.
The idea is to make it “something you could hand to a school or theater department to produce,” he said.
Whitebird, who has often collaborated with Carlson, is also a believer in the show, which he describes as informative yet entertaining. “It’s a great script,” he said. “David is a great songwriter. I can’t say enough about that.”
He appreciates that the play goes beyond the battlefield. “It’s not blood and guts. It’s very centered on the families and people back home,” he said.
Carlson’s wife, Dawn LeClair, is stepping into one of the characters on the home front. She’s singing the part of a mother for the recording that’s in the production phase.
One particularly poignant song centers on the mother as she goes through a box of her son’s belongings, like his “first socks.”
Singing about that, “It feels so real, but not sappy,” she said. “It’s a very moving piece.”
As a mother two grown sons, “When you sing songs like that, you think of your own children, what it would be like,” she said, adding, “It makes you feel connected to people that you really never knew yourself.”
Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer